An ancient city, hidden in the rock. A wonder of the world. A place of legends. Yet distance and costs leave many asking "is Petra worth visiting?"
The short answer is: YES! The long version involves these wonderful Petra facts...
Is Petra worth visiting?
What is it like to visit Petra?
Dust rose from the ground as the horse thundered past and the sun began its ablutions. It painted pinks and pomegranates, amber, pistachio, charcoal and soft apricot rust across the walls of Petra before calling it a day and turning in for an early night.
A donkey stamped its foot in the chalky rock. Colour faded to grey, while my muscles trembled with fatigue.
Petra at sunset isn’t a place you want to leave. It looks beautiful, you feel hot and tired and there’s a professional army of touts with a menagerie of animals whose job it is to make you stay. Donkeys, camels, horses, chariots. They all promise to make your journey easier and to let you stretch out time itself.
Time has a habit of playing tricks on you in Petra, not to mention the truth. When I first saw The Treasury, strawberry stone columns peering between a tear of jagged darkness, I felt thrilled. As though I was uncovering an ancient legend myself.
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The Hidden Truth About Petra
In a way, I was. The legend part, that is. It turns out that despite the bullet marks and the odd Hollywood film, the Treasury isn’t really a treasury. Never was. Debate continues as to what its true role involved, but most scholars plump for the label of “ceremonial tomb.”
As for the ancient part, well, like the fast-growing ivy colleges in the US, it turns out that Petra’s not as old as it looks. The Treasury has celebrated a mere two thousand or so birthdays, a cheeky child with freckles when compared to the crumbly Egyptian Pyramids or the rocky giants of Stonehenge.
Right now, though, I have more than a few thousand years to worry about. I have about fifteen minutes.
The flashlight from an official brings me back to the present and I rally the sinews of my less than heroic muscles and attempt to stride but tend to hobble towards the exit.
So is Petra worth visiting?
Is Petra worth visiting? You probably don't need me to spell out that my answer is yes. You may need me to tell you that it is vast. This city, built by the Naboteans, “inherited” by the Romans, lived in by the Bedouins and “discovered” by the Swiss – is colossal. Huge. A Roman-style theatre designed for around 3000 people registers as something of an afterthought, dwarfed as it is by everything else there is to see.
Petra spreads over 250 square kilometres - and the only realistic way in – and out – is by foot.
Update: you can now take a golf buggy along the siq to the Treasury. But beyond that, you still need to walk.
What You Need to Know
In fact, transport in Petra has become something of a political circus, with a near farcical arrangement of options. In the past, local Bedouin on horseback would charge through the kilometre-long gorge, with travellers crammed into their wagons behind. As Petra’s fame and popularity grew, however, problems arose since the gorge, or siq did not grow one inch.
Horse manure, accidents, rumours of hustling and intimidation...
“Eventually, authorities decided to ban horses in the siq altogether,” said my guide, perhaps an unreliable source himself as a horse-drawn chariot stormed past us into the gorge, drowning out his words.
“That’s different,” he said, although he never explained why.
The official line seems to be that Bedouin horses can travel the few hundred metres from the ticket gate to the entrance of the Petra gorge, with approval for a few carriages to travel on further than that. A short - and rather stunted - effort.
Horses on a Visit to Petra, Jordan
The situation has irritated many, exasperated that the cost of the ride is now factored into the ticket price, regardless of whether you use it.
As a first time visitor, though, I found the sight of the horses incredibly atmospheric. They’re ridden with a ferocity and abandon I’d not seen before. Flowing robes and jet black hair streaming into the wind. Clouds of purple-pink Petra dust thrown into spirals and hanging in the heat-soaked air.
It’s what dreams and legends are made of.
But perhaps not thin cotton trousers. To preserve the skin on my thighs, I staggered on towards the gate, feeling a mixture of both gratitude and joy.
For my time in Petra wasn’t over yet. I would soon be back - for Petra at Night.
Disclosure: I visited Jordan as a guest of Visit Jordan for the first few times and then with Globus on their wonderful Jordan Escape tour. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what's the point?
10 Top Tips for Visiting Petra
1 - Wear comfortable clothes. You will spend A LOT of time walking and standing and there are few opportunities to rest.
2 - Take account of the weather in Petra, Jordan. It is HOT. Take water, sunscreen, hats and long-sleeved tops and trousers that run to the ground.
3 - Embrace the history of Petra, Jordan. Either book a knowledgable guide or read up first. When I travelled on the Jordan Escape from Globus Travel, Osama was a fantastic guide for the whole of our Jordan itinerary. What's more, he helped us book a specialist guide, Abdullah, for Petra as we wanted to hike to the Treasury via the Monastery, which is the opposite way around to normal. Great guides are worth their weight in gold. I would highly recommend working with Globus!
4 - Plan nothing else for the rest of the day.
5 - Stay at a hotel near Petra, Jordan to make the most of your time. I stayed at the Moevenpick Hotel Petra which is almost as close as you can get. That way you can be up and out by dawn and beat the crowds.
6 - Be prepared to take a LOT of photos. Batteries charged. Power bank charged.
7 - Keep an eye on the time and check the closing time as you head in. Distances are huge so make sure you can get back to the entrance gate in plenty of time.
8 - Plan to arrive the night before and, in my opinion, leave the night after. To make the most of a visit to Petra, it pays to take your time.
9 - Don't miss the Petra at Night experience. It's simply amazing.
10 - If you're looking for something else to do while you're nearby, take a Jordanian cooking lesson.
11 - No matter how tired you feel, make time to visit the new museum near the main entrance. Its multimedia exhibits bring the history of Petra to life. And its air conditioning can revive weary souls and soles!
Interesting Petra Facts
- Petra was "rediscovered" by the world at large in 1812. But, of course, the local Bedouin people always knew it was there.
- Petra is nicknamed the "Rose City."
- While the exact founding date is unclear, the closest date archaeologists agree on is around 310 BC.
- Petra was not Roman nor Egyptian. It was Nabatean.
- In 2007, Petra was listed as one of the new "7 Wonders of the World" along with the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Colosseum, Chichen Itza and Christ, the Redeemer in Rio.
- The name Petra derives from the Greek for "rocks."
- Perhaps the most useful fact about Petra is that it is huge! While photos focus on the Treasury, the city extends over an enormous area. Experts believe that only around 15% has been fully explored.
- The Treasury, the most famous place in Petra, remains a mystery. Was it actually a treasury? Experts think not. Was it a mausoleum or tomb? Or simply a grand statement at the entrance to this important trading post? We still do not know.
- Petra has over 800 cave-like spaces that are believed to be tombs.
- Petra's water supply system was ahead of its time. In recent years, digging began to provide a new water supply to the area. The work discovered ancient water channels originally laid down by the Nabateans.
- Petra imposed a harsh taxation system on travellers who arrived in search of food, water and trade. They could enter but up to one third of their caravan had to be handed over.
- The place is made for movie magic. Indiana Jones is probably the most famous Hollywood character to charge around the place but The Mummy Returns also shot scenes here.
- You can buy Indiana Jones style hats from hawkers along the route.
- While Petra remains firmly associated with the Nabateans, the Edomites lived in the area from the 18th to 2nd century BC and the Romans moved in between 105 and 305 BC.
More on Travel in Jordan
Now that you've soaked up these interesting facts about Petra, see our travel guide to the best things to do in Jordan and then browse through the articles below:
- Jordanian Food: the 21 dishes you need to know
- Is Petra at night worth it?
- How the Madaba mosaics show the pathway to peace
- How to plan the perfect Jordan itinerary
- When is the best time to visit Jordan?
- Why Bedouin coffee matters more than you think
- Is Jordan safe for solo female travellers?
- Fun facts about the Dead Sea